Unlike its predecessor Aliens was directed by James Cameron and abandoned the chiller style horror of the first film and instead opts for a more action packed affair. There are still some horrifying moments, and as the only survivor of the previous film (except the cat) Sigourney Weaver is the only character from the original to return although the others are seen on a television screen.
Now, I have a small confession…I actually saw Aliens before I had seen Alien and basically sat up watching this film one night trying to see how much of it I would get through before getting too scared and turning it off. I made it through the entire thing and enjoyed it so much that I went out and got a copy of Alien so I could see what happened in the first film.
So what has Ripley been up to since killing the titular monster in Alien?
She has been right where we left her, in the escape shuttle. Having been drifting in space for 57 years Ripley (Weaver reprising her role) is discovered by a deep space salvage team and awakens in a hospital facility. She suffers from constant nightmares of an alien being inside her. To make things worse she is held responsible for the destruction of the Nostromo, having been the one who activated the self-destruct, and her story about the encounter with the alien is met by disbelief. The planet where the deralict ship was discovered, now designated LV-426, has been colonised and no one there has ever reported encountering anything like the alien Ripley described. Now if you are watching the Director’s Cut there is some stuff on the planet and shows the discovery of the derelict ship, if you are watching the original version, then you’ll miss that and the story will continue as it does below.
Discredited and suffering from persistence nightmares Ripley is approached by Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) and Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) who tell her that they have lost contact with the colony on LV-426. If she agrees to accompany a crack squadron of marines to the planet she will be reinstated as a flight officer. With little choice she agrees and is introduced to the Colonial Marines, including Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews), Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), Privates Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Hudson (Bill Paxton), and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen).
Once they arrive on the planet by dropship they find the colony deserted and evidence of a xenomorph (that is what the aliens are called now) outbreak. After tracking down the location of the colonists they wander into a nest and are attacked by dozens of aliens.
Retreating to the colony, the survivors decide to bomb the colony, but their dropship crashes and is destroyed stranding them on the planet. They learn that it will take 17 days for another ship to arrive but only after they are declared over due. Realising that they need to fortify their position and figure out a way of getting the second dropship down from their orbiting vessel, the survivors await the onslaught from the huge numbers of xenomorphs lurking nearby.
With sequels, one question will always be at the forefront of an audience’s mind: is the sequel superior to the original??
In most cases this will be a resounding no, with the majority of sequels simply being cash-ins on the success of the original that add little to nothing to the story, characters, or the universe the story takes place in…however, in the case of Aliens such claims are vastly inaccurate.
In the original film a single alien was able to hunt down and kill six of the seven crew members of the Nostromo mainly due to the fact that the crew didn’t possess anything really capable of fighting the creature (no guns, or explosives). Here the marines are armed with pulse rifles and various other weapons cable of killing the xenomorphs, and they do manage to kill a lot of them, they are simply ambushed and pushed back by overwhelming alien numbers. Ripley is the only one who has any idea about what they are facing and the confidence of the marines is quickly replaced by horror as they realise what they are up against.
James Cameron (the director of Terminator in 1984) had his reputation as a action director cemented by this film. Even though the creepy horror element of the first film has been lost here, the idea of pitting supposedly tough-as-nails marines against the vicious aliens is simply brilliant, especially considering that the audience knows the marines are going to crack up when faced with the xenomorphs. Of course part of the fun of this film is watching as the marines are seen to be cowering in fear about what they are truly facing and the realisation of how unlikely it is that they are actually going to survive. Iconic weapons like the pulse rifle and the smart gun appear and the motion tracker has become synonymous with the Colonial Marines seen for the first time here. Now whilst no one has managed to do justice to the idea of the Colonial Marines since this film, here the squad is rapidly reduced in numbers leaving the survivors to hold out until rescue arrives or they can get the second dropship. The cast are all on excellent form with Bill Paxton a particular highlight as Hudson. The cast were encouraged to decorate and personalise their armour which also helps to add extra dimensions to the characters, fleshing them out, and giving them more distinct personalities rather than simply being cannon fodder for the alien's to chew on.
Sigourney Weaver is also given the opportunity to have Ripley’s character developed as she becomes a mother figure to an orphaned little girl called Newt (Carrie Henn). Again in the Director's Cut we learn that she had a daughter who died before Ripley was found, and so it could be argued that Newt is basically a serrogate daughter to replace the one she lost, but it doesn't matter as it gives the audience the opportunity to see Ripley fighting to protect the life of a child. I mean taking on an alien after spouting the immortal line...you know what I'm not going to say it but if you've seen it you'll know exactly which line I'm talking about and if you haven't seen Aliens...well then there is something obviously wrong with you.
If I have one criticism of this film it is this...why was no one left onboard the mother ship, the Sulaco, when the marines go down to the surface?? Why was the ship even equipped with two dropships if all the marines comfortably fitted into one?? Maybe because I am a fan of Star Trek this bugs me, because it just seems a little foolish for a squad of marines that are expecting to find xenomorphs, to have no backup onboard their ship. Surely leaving a skeleton crew aboard would have been far smarter than sending everyone to the surface together.
Admittedly that complaint is minimal and does not take away any of the enjoyment of the pulse pounding action on screen.
The result of all the great factors, this is a sequel that remains true to the horror elements of the original (the chest bursting and aliens) but is also able to carve out its own niche that leaves the audience to wonder whether it is superior to the original.
Personally, I don’t think this can be considered superior to Alien because they are approaching the story in completely different ways. Alien was about claustrophobia, heart pounding suspense, and a monster that could not be beaten stalking a crew mercilessly. Aliens has a fuck-load of aliens, that can be killed but are also intelligent, problem solving, and relentlessly searching for a way of finding a way of getting to the marines and cocooning them to make more of their own kind.
So asking is Aliens better than Alien is like asking if walking through a haunted house in pitch darkness is as good as doing a bungee jump, both will get your heart racing, however being scared out of your mind is not the same thrill as hurling yourself off a crane with a bit of elastic tied to your shoes.
Clearly my Thumb is Up because this film made me go out and watch Alien and ultimately purchase the Alien Quadrilogy boxset. It is undoubtably one of my favorite movies of all time and continues to delight fans and new comers to the franchise.
10/10 - A truly great sci-fi sequel that is arguably better than the original and such a thing is a very rare.